Audi’s newest e-tron is big and bold, but is it the future?
Here’s what to expect to come from the newcomer to Audi’s ever-growing electric family
Audi is setting out its stall to become the preeminent supplier of premium electric vehicles. The company has been slowly ushering in its e-tron family of pure EVs since 2018 and the slow trickle of bespoke models is finally turning into a flood. This, the e-tron S Quattro, is a more practical version of the e-tron Sportback, with a more conventional SUV-style body shape and the same electric underpinnings.
Thus far, the Audi approach has been to give its customers exactly what they expect, with no unwanted surprises. So you get a smart, beautifully put together interior, with excellent tech, graphics and input systems. You also get a chiselled, rather brutish exterior that is similar in appearance and proportion to Audi’s extensive range of conventionally powered and hybrid cars.
Within a couple of months, the e-tron and e-tron Sportback will be joined by the Q4 e-tron and Q4 e-tron Sportback. Are you sensing a whiff of confusion yet? Regardless of how finely finished these electric Audis are, there’s a light filter of confusion over the whole e-tron sub-brand. We think there are two problems. The first is the name itself. Audi hoped that ‘e-tron’ would quickly gain the same kind of brand halo as ‘quattro’, the badge that began as a specific car in 1980 and evolved into a signifier of the company’s premium four-wheel-drive models. Over the years, ‘quattro’ has been gradually eroded as four-wheel-drive became the rule, rather than the exception. A similar thing will happen with ‘e-tron’; electric cars might be a novelty now, but within a decade, every Audi will be electric, so the suffix will become moot. This particular car is both an e-tron and a quattro, muddying its image still further.
The other issue is one of design. Just like all the other premium manufacturers, Audi is pivoting fast towards pure electrification. However, it’s arriving at this new, urgent reality from a world dominated by SUVs and crossovers, whether big or small. As a result, the first EVs from many companies are SUV-shaped, bringing all the advantages – and disadvantages – that this niche has to offer. The e-tron S is big. Physics dictates that in order to achieve any kind of acceptable range, batteries have to be big as well. But batteries are heavy, and thus the car gets bigger still. And so on. Very few EVs manage this engineering tightrope with aplomb; dare we say it’s only the stripped back, minimal ethos of Tesla that gives the wholehearted impression that the car is doing its best to be as efficient as possible. The e-tron S has a range of 222 miles, which puts it fairly in the doldrums of range anxiety – sufficient for everyday use but not quite far enough for you to be completely carefree.
In a large, luxury SUV like this one, there’s little impression of efficiency. Instead, it is left to the driver to hone and deploy the most parsimonious driving habits they possibly can. E-tron models are good at harnessing wasted kinetic energy wherever they can, but the bottom line is that the performance benefits of electric drive become little treats you can only dispense towards the end of a journey, when a charge station is well within sight. Otherwise, every excess ounce of pressure on the accelerator feels like a waste of precious juice. If only we’d learned to treat petrol powered cars the same way.
Audi has just unveiled its new Q4 e-tron and Q4 Sportback e-tron models and they feel a bit like more of the same; an established template given an electric spin. The e-tron GT is also on its way, a more conventional sedan-shaped vehicle that puts even more focus on performance. At least every e-tron goes all in on Audi’s fabled adeptness at tech – the Q4 models include an augmented reality head-up display and touch-sensitive controls on the steering wheel boss, as well as the introduction of an audio system from Sonos. The e-tron S Sportback even has the option of screens instead of rear-view mirrors.
As batteries improve, ranges extend and expectations shift, we have to hope that the automobile settles down and becomes a friendlier object, not an overbearing piece of mobile architecture that completely cocoons its occupants from the world. The e-tron S does this with style, at the expense of helping EVs become the friendlier face of the car. Still, there’s more come. The Q4s will be the smallest and most affordable electric Audis to date. Time, and physics, will tell whether the company will ever create a truly premium compact electric car. §